Grease Monkeys Go Green

A new breed of car mechanics tune up the repair business

  • Green Auto Makers

    Illustration by Ryan Cox

  • Green Auto Makers

When “Organic Mechanic” Charley Wilson first moved into his repair shop in Asheville, North Carolina, he had to scrape half an inch of caked-on filth off the floor and then clean and seal a drain that led to a nearby river. Today, the floors have neither a drop of oil nor a mark of grime (and there is no drain where he easily could have washed such pollutants away).

Wilson’s three-year-old garage is just one of many across the country that are redefining what is traditionally viewed as a dirty business. The powerful solvents that are used to cut grease in most auto shops often release air-polluting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when they are being manufactured, used, and disposed of. Automobile fluids that aren’t disposed of properly, such as oil and antifreeze, contaminate landfills and pollute local waterways.

Wilson, 34, recycles his oil by selling it to a refinery, and then he buys it back. He’s also invested in a special sink that contains bacteria to break down and wash away grease in a process called bioremediation. Small measures like using a refillable bottle containing a biodegradable, citrus-based degreaser also help. Behind the shop, double-walled storage bins prevent accidental leakage of used antifreeze and oil until the liquids are picked up for recycling. The parking lot is as clean as the service bay, so rain doesn’t carry pollutants into storm drains. “You’re making an impact at different levels,” he says. “What we’re offering customers is another way to make a little bit of a difference.”

A number of organizations around the country certify ecofriendly auto repair shops. One of them, the Bay Area Green Business Program, formed in the San Francisco area 11 years ago; some 150 repair shops are now on board. The group targets regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, waste reduction, and energy and water conservation.

Participating mechanics say that having a green seal of approval has been great for business. Dana Meyer, who has taken pains to run an environmentally responsible business since he installed water-conserving foot pedals on his sinks back in the ’70s, says the official benchmark has brought more conscientious customers to his Albany, California, shop. He displays his certificate prominently near the service desk, mentions it in advertisements, and receives referrals from the program’s website (

This sort of marketing technique helps green auto garages remain competitively priced, shop owners say. And while the cost of environmentally friendly products is often higher, changing practices—capturing spills in pans instead of using absorbents, for example—often costs nothing (owners actually save money by reducing the amount of absorbent they have to purchase). Other improvements, while they may cost more up front, often yield eventual savings. Mechanic David Pothier installed radiant-heat floors and a heater fueled by waste oil when he opened Cars Unlimited 20 years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. The system paid for itself in reduced utility bills.

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